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Live performances from the '80s rock underground resurface in KCRW archive

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Our next story is about an influential radio deejay that you've probably never heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DEIRDRE O'DONOGHUE: Hello. It's Saturday night at KCRW 89.9 FM. My name's Deirdre. I'll be your host once you pour yourself a drink and think about dancing.

NADWORNY: Before streaming, before the internet, Deirdre O'Donoghue hosted a popular late-night radio show on member station KCRW in Southern California back in the '80s and early '90s. The show was called SNAP!

MYKE DODGE WEISKOPF, BYLINE: Deirdre would describe herself in SNAP! as playing, quote, "new, unusual, imaginative, inventive and bent music."

NADWORNY: That's KCRW producer Myke Dodge Weiskopf. He has spent the last few years, along with KCRW producer Bob Carlson, digitizing and remastering recordings of Deirdre's shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

O'DONOGHUE: All right. Now what I need you to do - we have to do a little on-air sound check here. So I need you to strum for a minute.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: And I'm going to be singing quite loud. I'm going to be singing quite loud.

O'DONOGHUE: Well, give me a hint.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: But don't turn me guitar up too loud...

O'DONOGHUE: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: 'Cause I sound - I'm really rubbish.

NADWORNY: SNAP! often brought in bands to play live in the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

O'DONOGHUE: Give me a sample of singing.

WEISKOPF: She was very devoted to underground music - music that hadn't, at that point, received a wide exposure, if any exposure at all.

NADWORNY: Some of those artists were or were soon to be big names, like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Tom Waits and Sarah McLaughlin. Bob Carlson was the studio engineer for a lot of those late-night performances.

BOB CARLSON, BYLINE: It almost felt a little bit like the adults had left, and now it was time to have this party. And the bands would come down. They would pile in. They would bring their friends. And so it was a scene. It was a scene there in the studio as much as, you know, a radio program. You were part of this, you know, living room party with some of the coolest bands in the world.

NADWORNY: KCRW is about to release more than 50 of these remastered live performances to the public. They'll be available Monday. So we invited Mike and Bob to come and tell us about some of their favorite finds.

CARLSON: The ones that I remember are the ones that where people come in and they try something new. One that comes off the top of my head is the Meat Puppets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARLSON: One of the performances that you can hear online is them just going through a bunch of stuff. Almost off the top of their head, they're coming up with what they're going to play next - just as they go, almost - even, like, creating sort of medleys on the fly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARLSON: It's like a journey of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) "Well, I'm going to tell you how it's going to be."

WEISKOPF: I'm going to choose one that, I guess, maybe, falls more in the publicity tour end of things, but it's - Suzanne Vega came in for her second-ever radio appearance anywhere in the world...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WEISKOPF: ...In April of 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUZANNE VEGA: (Singing) I believe right now, if I could, I would swallow you whole.

WEISKOPF: Her record hadn't even come out yet. And, you know, early Suzanne Vega was really kind of a spectral presence. I mean, she had this really mystical, kind of understated sound that was really, you know, I mean, entirely unique in a lot of ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VEGA: (Singing) I am friend to the undertow. I take you in.

WEISKOPF: And there's a version of her song "Undertow," in particular, that I think is really just ravishing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VEGA: (Singing) And now I have you.

NADWORNY: There are also less well-known artists - like groups that Deirdre made famous because of the show, with her community, but never really made it kind of, like, mainstream into big pop.

CARLSON: Yeah, I mean, and that's, again, you know, a different era. 'Cause, you know, now, where you can basically hear any song you want to hear ever, at any time, here, you would discover things. You would hear things you couldn't hear anywhere else because Deirdre - you know, she would take trips to London and Dublin and - just to buy records. And so she would bring them back and play them here when they weren't even out yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE AEROPLANES SONG, "AND STONES")

CARLSON: There was a band called The Blue Aeroplanes, which is also one of my favorites, and their full-on electric session was like, an event.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE AEROPLANES SONG, "AND STONES")

CARLSON: Deirdre used to mishear the lyrics. And there's a line in a song where he says, bring structures. And she thought he was always saying, send instructions.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

CARLSON: And so when The Blue Aeroplanes played that song, he changed the lyrics to Deirdre's version.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THE BLUE AEROPLANES: (Singing) Send instructions. Once a town...

NADWORNY: Wow. Yeah. There's such community and, like, closeness in that example. I love that.

This also got me thinking - how did Deirdre learn about these independent artists? You said she was traveling and, like, finding records. Where else did she get these ideas from?

CARLSON: Her whole life was music. That was her whole point of living, practically. And so all her friends were musicians. You know, she lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica that was just packed full of records, wall to wall. That's really what she cared about.

WEISKOPF: And one thing I'll say, too, like, is, you know, Deirdre was a scholar, and she made meticulous notes for her shows. I mean, her genius is that she comes off very off-the-cuff, but she would have pages and pages of notes about every record that she'd bought. She would do deep research on these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THE BLUE AEROPLANES: Ha.

NADWORNY: The recordings that are being released right now - a lot of them were originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape, right? Like, we're talking kind of old mechanics...

CARLSON: Yeah. Mmm hmm.

NADWORNY: ...Here. What was the process of remastering those? Like, how long does something like that take?

CARLSON: For one thing, I had to get our engineers here at KCRW to roll out a reel-to-reel machine, which we didn't use, you know? We had one in storage that we had to get out of mothballs and plug into one of our mixers. And when you have reel-to-reel tapes - after you've had them for a long time, they start to get filled with moisture. So what we used to do - in the old days, we would bake them in a convection oven, and then you can dub them off until they go bad again. But I found a food dehydrator, and I found...

NADWORNY: (Laughter) What?

CARLSON: I bought a $50 food dehydrator on Amazon, and it was even round. It was shaped like reels.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

CARLSON: It had little baskets for each reel. So it's almost like it was made for the purpose. And that was the beginning of the project. But then that was only the beginning because she also had boxes and boxes of cassettes, which I handed off to Myke, which he then took over in his home studio of digitizing.

NADWORNY: And so, Myke, you just kind of, like - did you listen as you dubbed, or - what was...

WEISKOPF: Oh, for...

NADWORNY: ...That like? Yeah.

WEISKOPF: I mean, that was a dream come true.

NADWORNY: Any song or moments from the tapes that you might want to go out on?

WEISKOPF: Bob, do you have a favorite that you think might send us off into the sunset?

CARLSON: Do you think Nick Cave?

WEISKOPF: That could work.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS SONG, "THE MERCY SEAT")

CARLSON: Yeah. I mean, again, 'cause I think of the vibe when this thing happened, and one of those that I think about is Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, when they came in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) A blackened tooth, a scarlet fog. The walls are bad. Black. Bottom kind. They are the sick breath at my hind.

CARLSON: They kind of got it. They pulled up chairs, put them in a circle. They kind of improvised instruments a little bit. There was, you know, one - they saw that we had a piano, so the guy sits down, starts playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) I told the truth, and I'm...

CARLSON: Somebody's playing drums on a box.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) And the mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is burning. In a way, I'm yearning...

CARLSON: The first song they did on their session was called "The Mercy Seat." It's a well-known Nick Cave song, but it's just such a crazy vibe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) For a tooth. And anyway, I told the truth.

CARLSON: You can hear and feel that they're kind of doing it as they go along.

NADWORNY: I love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) And mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is smoking.

NADWORNY: Bob Carlson and Myke Dodge Weiskopf of KCRW - thanks for talking with us, guys.

CARLSON: Thank you.

WEISKOPF: Pleasure was ours.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS SONG, "THE MERCY SEAT")

NADWORNY: Starting Monday, you can access the archive of SNAP! performances through kcrw.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Beautiful.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.